Skip to main content

The Gradual (SF) - Christopher Priest ****

Christopher Priest may not be a prolific writer, but he was writing when I first got interested in science fiction, and he's still producing remarkable novels - most recently The Gradual. It's a remarkable book - mysterious, intriguing and with a main character who really takes the reader along on his sometimes dream-like experience.

But for one problem, it would have a solid five stars - and that's that it shouldn't really be here at all, because it's not science fiction, it's fantasy. (Unless you take the old definition that 'science fiction is what science fiction authors write.') I need to note a few specifics to explain why, but I'll try not to make them spoilers.

What makes it fantasy? Firstly it's set on a world that clearly isn't Earth, yet absolutely everything about the culture and environment (other than the fantasy elements we'll come to) is exactly like Earth, from the alcoholic drinks to the musical instruments and gramophone records. That's a relatively minor aspect. But then we've got a world where traveling from island to island causes shifts in time - you could just about set up an SF explanation for this, but it is not attempted. And most of all, these time shifts are countered by what can only be described as magic.

If we get over the book sneaking in here under false pretences, though, it is marvellous. It's not a book to read if you like everything set out just so from the beginning. Like the great Gene Wolfe, Priest enjoys leaving us confused about what's going on, only gradually revealing what's happening near the end. (Frustratingly so, to an extent, as the main character really doesn't try very hard to get an explanation, other than from people whose job it is not to give it.)

The best parts are those involving the nastiness of living in a dictatorship and anything connected to music. Throughout the book, music is a powerful theme - Priest really puts us in the head of a true musician and it's a wonderful experience.

Just occasionally there seem to be logical gaps. For example, the main character is advised that just moving around on a particular island will cause him big problems - yet everyone else, who should have the same problems, seems to do so just fine. And some of the supporting characters, particularly the female ones, could do with a bit of rounding out. But this doesn't stop this being a remarkable piece of writing.

In the past, I've found that it has been hard work to read some of Priest's novels (Inverted World springs to mind) - and the outcome sometimes didn't reward the effort. The Gradual reads like a dream (both metaphorically and literally in places) - it's excellent just as a highly approachable novel, but is also inspiring. Probably the best book by Priest I've ever read.

Paperback:  
Kindle:  


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

De/Cipher - Mark Frary ****

I was a little doubtful when I first saw this book. Although it has the intriguing tagline 'The greatest codes ever invented and how to crack them' the combination of a small format hardback and gratuitous illustrations made me suspect it would be a lightweight, minimal content, Janet and John approach to codes and ciphers. Thankfully, in reality Mark Frary manages to pack a remarkable amount of content into De/Cipher's slim form.

Not only do we get some history on and instructions to use a whole range of ciphers, there are engaging little articles on historical codebreakers and useful guidance on techniques to break the simpler ciphers. The broadly historical structure takes the reader through basic alphabetic manipulation, keys, electronic cryptography, one time pads and so on, all the way up to modern public key encryption and a short section on quantum cryptography. 

We even get articles on some of the best known unsolved ciphers, such as the Dorabella and the Voynich ma…

Paul McAuley - Four Way Interview

Paul McAuley won the Philip K. Dick Award for his first novel and has gone on to win the Arthur C. Clarke, British Fantasy, Sidewise and John W. Campbell Awards. He gave up his position as a research biologist to write full-time. He lives in London. His latest novel is Austral.


Why science fiction?

For one thing, I fell in love with science fiction at an early age, and haven’t yet fallen out of love with it (although I have flirted with other genres). For another, we’re living in an increasingly science-fictional present. Every day brings headlines that could have been ripped from a science-fiction story. Giant robot battle: Who knew a duel between chainsaw-armed mech suits could be so boring? for instance. Or, Roy Orbison hologram to embark on UK tour in 2018. And looming above all this, like Hokusai’s famous wave, are the ongoing changes caused by global warming and climate change, which is just one consequence of human activity having become the dominant force of change on the planet…

Karl Drinkwater - Four Way Interview

Karl Drinkwater is originally from Manchester, but has lived in Wales half his life. He is a full-time author, edits fiction for other writers and was a professional librarian for over twenty-five years. He has degrees in English, Classics and Information Science. When he isn't writing, he loves exercise, guitars, computer and board games, the natural environment, animals, social justice, cake and zombies - not necessarily in that order. His latest novel is Lost Solace.

Why science fiction?

My favourite books have always been any form of speculative fiction. As a child I began with ghost stories, which were the first books to make me completely forget I was reading. By my teenage years I was obsessed with fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Although I read literary and contemporary books, non-fiction, historical works, classics and so on, it is speculative fiction that I return to when I want escape and wonder. When I read reviews of my last book, the fast-paced novella Harvest Fe…